Monday, July 30, 2012

From Trash to Treasure

One side effect of my increased jogging efforts is that I see a lot more of my neighbor's curbs than I normally would. I typically jog through the various neighborhoods near our home, switching up my routes for variety. Therefore, on trash day (and the days before and after) I see a lot of the stuff people put by the curb to be taken away. Recently with all the wind damage, it's been mostly tree limbs, but occasionally people put out some interesting stuff. I jogged by a particular pile near someone who was moving, and noticed what looked to me like a relatively nice piece of wood working. I didn't stop (because I couldn't- fitness first), but I took a good look when I ran by it again and decided that the lack of recent rain had spared it and that I would stop by with my car and grab it asap. What I got was a cracked, cobwebby former end table with no top. Observe its beauty:

or not. 

it's seen better days

It had 4 fairly penetrating cracks through the sort of heart-shaped bottom portion, and I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew trying to fix it, but it also has a lot of nice detail and is a heavy, solid piece, so I decided to try. After knocking off most of the cobwebs (yuck!), I got out the clamp and wood glue. Here is Holmes modeling the table as it lays on its side getting glued.

Using 2 clamps would have been optimal, but I only had one, so I only used one. I glued each crack and clamped it at least overnight, adding a couple of finishing nails in inconspicuous places to help reinforce it. Next I took it outside and sanded it all over. I used an electric sander on most of it and a sanding sponge on all of the small detail areas. At this point I made the decision that I didn't want to use it as a table, but wanted to try to make a bench instead. We've got plenty of end tables, but we can always use more seating. With that in mind, I went to pick out a fabric to put on a top cushion. I had originally planned this for the guest room, so I was generally trying to match the color scheme of light greens, yellow, and aqua in there. The fabric I picked is an ikat, which is big right now, and it's exactly the colors I wanted, however I'm still deciding if I love the print or not. George says it "hurts his eyes." 

Once I had my fabric, I went over to Lowe's to get some paint to match. I ended up with a historic preservation color, which I like the idea of for a sort of vintage shabby chic piece. I thought about going with the deeper olive green that's an accent color, but we all know I'm a junkie for any shade of teal, so the light aqua color won out. I ended up with a Valspar paint and primer in one, since I'm both optimistic and lazy, but it actually went on really nicely and covered in two coats. I used a small foam roller to apply the paint evenly to the flat areas without brush marks. I also used a small foam paintbrush to get in the many crevices and detail areas. 

using the foam roller

foam brush for the small parts


I painted outside and was constantly harassed by mosquitos, who laughed at my bug bracelet and bit me anyway. Repeatedly. No sacrifice too great for DIY. 

Next, I worked on my cushion for the top of the bench. I went and got some 3/4 inch plywood cut to the dimensions of the top of my bench at Home Depot. It was cheap and sturdy, and I appreciate that they will cut it for you, since I have a mitre saw, but no table saw. I did some research online and found that high-density foam is what you want on your bench to cushion your buns. I went to a fabric store and got a piece that was closest to my top dimensions, then cut it down with a box cutter, using my wood piece as a guide. 

At this point I thought I was all ready to wrap my fabric around the top of my foam and wood piece, but realized that the corners were quite sharp, despite the foam. To round the corners, I used a double layer of batting over the foam and wood, wrapping it like a present and stapling it to the back. 

putting the batting over the foam

my new staple gun in action

keeping the corners neat

Once you get it all stapled on the back, it's important to cut off as much excess batting as you can beyond the staples. This will help it lie flatter when you attach it to the bench base later. Next, I did the same process with the fabric over top. Do remember to iron your fabric first though, so it's not wrinkled for eternity on the bench. The corners were the hardest part and took some experimenting to get them even close to how I wanted them to look. 

stapling again

tricky corners

finished cushion 

After a round of paint touch-ups, it was time to attach the cushion to the wooden base. I tried some nails initially, but the underside of the former table had a very small lip area to work with and I kept bending the nails. I had a feeling screws would work better anyway, and I was right. The best part was that I used screws leftover from a bookshelf we bought, so I didn't spend time and money getting them. I pre-drilled some guide holes slightly smaller than my screws and then used the power drill to screw them through the wooden base and into the plywood. Much better. Here's a shot of the bottom of the bench. 

one screw in each corner

And now it's all done! I took it upstairs by our bay window to photograph it in better light, and the cats tested it out immediately. 


I like the moldings at the top

It would have been a shame to toss it, right? 

Watson's enjoying the cushion

It turns out that it fits the color scheme of our living room just as well and can sit over the air vent without blocking the air flow, so I think I'll leave it upstairs for a while. There ends its journey from from the curb. I think it turned out well and was cheaper than buying the stylish upholstered stool/benches you see these days. 

feline tested, Holmes approved

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Happy 4th of July!

Lots of red, white, and blue food has been circulating around the Internet lately ahead of the holiday. I saw some cute dipped strawberries with white chocolate and blue sugar, but nothing really caught my imagination until I saw a marbled red, white, and blue cake. It seemed simple but fun to make. Here's the original recipe from Tablespoon. Frankly, it's more of a process than a recipe, because the original relies on a box cake mix and store-bought frosting. That's just not how I roll these days though. Have you ever looked at the ingredients in those pints of frosting? It's a lot more than butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt, let me tell you.

Anyway, based on my desire to make this cake (and, more importantly, for saving our bacon during the recent power outage), I invited my BFF Amanda and her boyfriend Brandon over to cook out on the 4th. I made hamburgers, roasted rosemary potatoes, sangria, and, of course, "firecracker" cake. I wanted to get some sparklers for the top, but I just didn't get it done. The original was in a bundt pan, and I don't own one yet, so I used a regular cake pan instead.

my firecracker cake interpretation

What I learned is that it takes a whoooole lotta food coloring to color cake batter (and frosting) a strong red and a strong blue. Because I was rushing a little, and because I didn't realize it would take SO much food coloring, my cake came out a little more tribute to the '80s than a tribute to America. A little more pink than red, really. But, it tasted great, so that's what really matters. I used an amazing frosting recipe that I got from my college friend Lauren's blog, which is great- she's such a foodie. Her recipe is for whoopie pie filling, but it made enough to frost the 12-inch cake with a little bit left over. This is some of the best frosting I've ever made or eaten, so you should try it for your next dessert that requires frosting- cake, cookies, cupcakes, whatever.

a shot of the marbled interior

This would be fun in a number of colors for kids' birthdays, etc. based on the same principle of coloring white cake. Just be prepared for a lot of food coloring and a lot of stirring. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Feeding Friendship: Spinach

This round it was my turn to pick our featured ingredient. You may want to be sitting down for this if you know me well...because I picked spinach.

It's the leafy green that I tolerate the best, mostly thanks to the good people of Italy and their insistence on putting it in delicious ravioli. I had seen some at the farmer's market recently, and decided to go for it. I thought about making said ravioli on my pasta machine (and I will, someday) but I ran across a recipe for Creamy Spinach Enchiladas on the Real Simple magazine Pinterest and my gut reaction was "yum!" so I decided to try them out. Their recipe calls for frozen chopped spinach, but I bought fresh (isn't fresh always better??) so I'm not sure I really had the correct amount of spinach they call for, but it worked out in the end. Also, their ingredient list includes items for a red cabbage salad that I (shockingly) didn't make, so if you decide to make this, don't just buy the whole list without realizing you'd be getting a salad too.

I started out by washing my spinach...and then washing it some more. Man, this stuff was gritty. Next, I chopped up all the leaves, removing all the large stems. Then I put in on my kitchen scale, hoping to reach the 10 oz the recipe calls for in the frozen bag, but my entire bunch was less than 6 oz when chopped, but still looked to me like a whole lot of spinach, so I just decided to go with what I had.

chopping the leaves

I put most of the spinach in a medium bowl and started adding the other ingredients: 1 cup of formerly frozen corn, 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, and 1/2 a can of green chilis. Because I am a  wimp when it comes to spicy food and because it just seemed like a lot, I reduced the amount of canned chilis by half, using half in the filling and half a can on top of the enchiladas. I thought this worked out fine and kept them from overwhelming the dish. 

colorful filling ingredients

My favorite grocery store, Wegman's, has a new campaign touting the benefits of "eating the rainbow" to get all your daily fruits and veggies. I'm usually terribly about this and eat a lot of beige, so I was happy to have some colorful ingredients in my bowl. Next I gave them a good stir and started on the creamy sauce. Instead of a cup of heavy cream, I used light cream, and I'm sure you could use half & half too. Then you just add salt & pepper to taste. 

cream sauce

 Next, it's time to load up your tortillas. Now, the optimal tortilla size for this is 6-inch, as the recipe states, but I didn't pay attention to that and had 8-inchers. I therefore ended up making fewer, but bigger enchiladas than if I had smaller tortillas. No matter.

fill 'er up!

I Pam'd the Pyrex pan and then arranged them all seam side down so they wouldn't pop open. Last, I  poured the sauce over all the rolled tortillas, then added the final 1/2 cup of cheese and 1/2 can of chilis. 

ready for the oven 

You cook these the first 15-20 minutes with the pan covered with foil, then remove it for the last 10-15. About half an hour later, I pulled them from the oven. 


I waited for them to cool for a few minutes and them plated them with some Goya Arroz Amarillo (my favorite). George put salsa on his, but I am a purist. 

doesn't look like the home of spinach, does it? 

Even though I thought these would be good, I was secretly afraid they would be too spinachy or that they wouldn't be filling enough as a meal. I was actually wrong and enjoyed these. George even said they were "a good dish," which is doing pretty well for something that's both green and vegetarian (ok maybe the tortillas were made with lard and are not technically vegetarian; I don't happen to care). These were quick and easy- even easier with frozen spinach- and would be a quick weeknight meal for anyone, which is why, I'm sure, that Real Simple published the recipe. I might throw some beans or rice in them next time or use a white Mexican cheese instead, but overall I was pretty pleased with how these worked out.  

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding

You may remember that I discovered a lovely blog that taught me how to make challah bread (see I Holler for Challah, if you missed it). She mentions in her recipe that you can add dried fruit to your bread, which I have done before, but as soon as I read that, my mind immediately ran to chocolate. If you can insert dried fruit, surely you could do the same with chocolate chips. So, the other day I decided to test my theory by rolling the chips inside each of the 3 ropes that make the braided bread. This came out pretty well, but in the future I think I would sprinkle a few chips between the strands as I braid them, just to distribute a few more chips around. Unfortunately, we weren't doing a good job of eating this delicious bread very fast, and it was a little bit dry, so I feared that it would soon mold. Then I remembered how to save stale bread: bread pudding!

My very scientific search of the web found many bread pudding recipes, and a few chocolate bread pudding recipes, but no chocolate chip bread pudding recipes, so I decided to invent it. I used the "Best Bread Pudding with Vanilla Sauce" recipe on because vanilla sauce is very important to bread pudding, in my opinion, and because it didn't call for insane amounts of eggs. I then substituted out the cup of raisins for a cup of milk chocolate chips- who wants raisins in a chocolate dish? Not this kid. Here is the ingredient list for the bread pudding:

  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1 1/2 cups white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 10 slices hearty farmhouse-style bread, toasted and cut into cubes ...or chocolate chip challah
  • 1 cup chocolate chips

I started out by cubing my remaining chocolate chip challah. I might cube them a bit smaller next time.

waste not, want not!

After turning the oven on at 375, I started to get the pudding ingredients in order in a large bowl. The bowl needs to fit you bread pieces later, so plan accordingly. You simply whisk together the eggs, milk, cinnamon, butter, and sugars- no need for electric beaters. 

ready for whisking

 Then add in your chocolate chips. The cinnamon mades the batter look spotty, not the chocolate.

chocolate time!

The recipe doesn't really call for it, but web consensus is to let your bread soak in the creamy pudding mixture for at least 10 minutes, if not longer. I stirred mine a couple of times to rotate which pieces were at the bottom, and to distribute the chocolate chips, which tend to sink. 

soaking time

While my bread was soaking and oven was warming, I got my ingredients ready for the vanilla sauce. You'll need: 

  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1 pinch ground cinnamon
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 1/4 cups whole milk
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

I melted the butter and kept it separate until I was ready to make the sauce, once the pudding was nearly done baking. It'll take around 10 minutes to thicken, so build that into your baking timeline so you won't have to wait on the sauce once the pudding is done. 

ready for action

Once the bread had soaked a while, I Pam'd a casserole dish and spooned the bread chunks into it, then poured the remaining liquid and chips over the whole thing. You don't want too much bread sticking out the top of the liquid or it may get overly brown. I baked for 25 minutes (convection) and then put the casserole lid on for the final 25. I took it off again at the end and cooked another 5-ish minutes until I was sure it was done. Checking for done-ness is a little tricky since a pudding is a bit liquidy and the chocolate complicates things, but I inserted a knife in the center and stopped cooking when it came out not completely dry, but mostly, and was pretty clean too. Here is the finished product: 


Extreme pudding closeup! 

After it cooled a little, I spooned portions into bowls and smothered them with the vanilla sauce. This was a little slice of heaven. It's not the most traditional bread pudding, but it's pretty darn tasty. 

Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding with Vanilla Sauce

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Feeding Friendship: Strawberries

I was at the farmer's market a couple weeks ago when I smelled the fresh strawberries at a particular stand. Many sellers had strawberries, but only one smelled so amazing, so I had to buy some there. I decided to make a Martha Stewart recipe for strawberry cake to use them up and randomly decided to take pictures for the blog, so I was thrilled when Ellie chose strawberries as our ingredient.

These berries weren't the biggest, and many were shaped a little oddly, but they smelled and tasted great

So, at the risk of offending Ms. Stewart, I'm going to call this recipe "Strawberry Identity Crisis Cake" because it's a cake that seems like it should be a pie. It's made of fruit and baked in a pie pan, for Petey's sake! It should be pie! But it's not; it's delicious cake instead. Here are the ingredients:

6 Tbl unsalted butter, softened, plus more to grease pie plate
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup + 2 Tbl sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 lb. strawberries (I think 3/4 lb would be fine, I had extra) 

First you preheat your oven, then sift together dry ingredients, per her directions at the link above. Making your batter in a stand mixer makes it so easy.

butter, sugar & egg

At some point you'll need to hull and halve your berries, and I whipped out my new kitchen scale so I would know when I had a pound ready to go. I like this scale because it does metric weights too.

right on the nose!

Then you pour your batter into your buttered pie plate and arrange the berries on top. I thought mine came out pretty:

pretty pie

Then you add your last 2 tablespoons of sugar on top. This seemed a little excessive to me, and I actually scrimped on the sugar a little (!), but in hindsight, the sugar forms this awesome sort of crunchy layer on top that reminds me of the life-changing gooey butter cake, so you may want to go whole hog on the sugar here. 

ready for the oven

My cake was looking so pretty and at this point I wondered why the one in Martha's photo looked like kind of a mess. Turns out that the batter sort of bubbles up and covers the berries, so your pretty pattern isn't going to matter much in the end product. Oh well. Around and hour (and several toothpick stabs) later, I pulled the cake out of the oven. We ate it straight, but it would be very good with either whipped cream or vanilla ice cream (or both, I won't tell). Here's the finished product:

slice of strawberry heaven

 I brought a piece in for my coworker who is leaving to go work overseas (sniffle) because I got sick and missed baking for her going away party. I asked her how she liked the cake and she said, "What did you put in it, crack?" ;) She offered to be my first online customer if I every opened a bakery. So, despite its  confused semi-pie status, this is one tasty cake. I recommend it!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Feeding Friendship: Lentils

For this round Ellie chose the humble, yet powerful lentil as our key ingredient. I have a good lentil pasta soup recipe, and one for a lentil and rice "casserole" that we used to put in burritos when I was younger, but I wanted to branch out. In my continuing quest to try cooking more Indian food, I had already found a recipe for Dal Ke Samose (lentil samosas), so this was an easy choice try to it out. The recipe I used is from a blog called Food Wanderings, which you should check out, so I won't reproduce all the directions. Here's the ingredient list though for planning/shopping purposes.

1 cup toor dal/ split pigeon pea/lentils
1/2 cup spring onions, finely chopped
1/4 cup mint leaves, chopped
1/4 cup coriander leaves, chopped
1 green chili, finely chopped
1 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp garam masala spice mix
1 tsp roasted cumin powder
Salt to taste

3Tbl water
1/4 cup AP flour
(I might cut this in half if you don't intend to make millions of samosas, you can always make more glue)

1 package frozen spring roll wrappers, thawed to room temperature

 I didn't use all the spices listed because I wasn't crazy about the idea of mint, and wasn't sure what to do about coriander leaves, so I just omitted those. The author's idea to use spring roll wrappers is genius and was a big time saver over making dough.  It also meant the crusts were thin and even, which (let's be real) wouldn't be likely with homemade dough.

Your first step is to prepare your lentils, which means rinsing them, picking out the weird ones, and then boiling them until they are tender. Mine were a little too done at 45 minutes boiling, so I would start checking them at 30.




You basically just mix in your spices and cut your spring roll wrappers in half, then stuff the mixture into the wrappers. 

spice mixture

cut your wrappers in half, making 2 strips

I had to really burn the grey matter to understand the folding instructions on her page, but practice made perfect(ish). They weren't unclear, I just have trouble doing spacial reasoning based on 2D pictures. My samosas were increasingly triangular, and after about lucky number 9 they started to look like her pictures, more or less. The step I added to her process was to put a little water/flour "glue" along the left edge of your wrapper after you make the first fold she talks about. So, you've got glue running along the left edge starting from the top of the diagonal fold and going to the top of the wrapper. This helps your little dough cone stick together better while you are filling it with lentils and prevents leaks later. 

filling the dough cone with lentils

finally starting to look samosa-esque

Her recipe says this makes "10-12." Either I'm seriously under-filling my samosas, or this is a terrible estimate. I got tired of filling around #14 and could have probably made 10 more with the amount of lentils I had left. So I'd estimate more like 2 dozen, depending upon how much you stuff yours. 

The next stage is frying and her suggestion to use a wok is a good one. The high sides helped keep the samosas in check and the pan heats up quickly. I used canola oil, but you can use whatever strikes your fancy. 

frying the samosas

the finished pile

The nice thing about the spring roll wrappers is that they make it obvious when they are done. When they are golden and bubbly all over, you're good to go. After I had gone through all these steps I had a moment of panic thinking about the red dipping sauce I had seen in her photos. I hadn't planned anything for the sauce and was suddenly overcome thinking of all the hard-to-find Indian sauce ingredients that I surely hadn't bought. Imagine my relief to read these 3 words: serve with ketchup. Done. I whipped up a little quinoa pilaf to go on the side and called it a night. Not too hard overall, you just have to start early due to the 30 minutes of lentil boiling you'll need to do ahead. 

I thought they were tasty and not very spicy, just flavorful. George ate about a half dozen in one sitting, so they passed the husband test. All in all, I would definitely recommend this recipe.